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Texas trailblazer: Clint Dempsey has best season by an American soccer player in Europe
Clint Dempsey jumped high in the air, both arms raised, as a fan in the stands at Fulham unfurled a Lone Star flag.
On this January afternoon in London, Dempsey had become the first American to score a hat trick in the history of the English Premier League. The eyes of English soccer were on the 28-year-old from Nacogdoches.
With 16 goals this season, the Texas trailblazer is destroying the image of the U.S. as a nation still searching for a top scorer.
"Being an American, I think you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder because there's a point to prove," Dempsey said this week as the U.S. national team prepared for Wednesday's exhibition game at Italy. "I guess you'll kind of feel that way until maybe you're doing better as a country as far as going further in World Cups or you have Americans who are playing on the biggest teams in the world."
Craven Cottage is a quaint, Wrigley Field-type stadium next to the Thames in southwest London. Dempsey walks onto the field before games, turns and blows kisses to his family sitting in the Cottage Pavilion seats, above the locker rooms.
He's given Fulham, which has never won a major title in its 133 years, reason to cheer. Dempsey has had the best season by an American attacking player in England. His 10 league goals (nearly one-third of Fulham's 32) raised his total to 43 since he was bought from Major League Soccer's New England Revolution in January 2007, and eclipsed the 36 by Brian McBride from 2003-08.
It's smashing no matter the nationality. Only seven players have more EPL goals this season, a starry group that includes Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero, Demba Ba, Edin Dzeko, Ayegbeni Yakubu and Emmanuel Adebayor.
"I think what he is doing and the attention he is getting is long overdue," said former U.S. national team forward Eric Wynalda, now a commentator for Fox Soccer. "Not only is he a constant performer, constantly earning his spot in the team, in my opinion, he's scoring a lot of goals from deep positions. He's not always playing up front, and that impresses the hell out of me."
Having never scored more than twice in a professional game, Dempsey had not just one, but a pair of hat tricks last month. First, he scored twice from the run of play and then added a penalty kick Jan. 7 in a 4-0 rout of third-tier Charlton in the FA Cup.
Exactly two weeks later, he scored three times from the run of play against goalkeeper Tim Krul in a 5-2 league win over Newcastle.
"It's always good to be doing well and to get accolades and stuff like that. But I'm not trying to be the first American to do this," he said. "I'm just trying to be the best player that I possibly can be."
Scoring against Ghana in 2006 and England in 2010, Dempsey joined McBride as the only Americans to score in two World Cups. A week shy of his 29th birthday, he hopes to be adding to that total at the 2014 tournament in Brazil. The game in Genoa is a prep for the start of qualifying for the Americans in June.
"It's a huge weapon that we have with him because his vision on the field, because of his sharpness, his one against one skills," said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, one of the top forwards in World Cup history. "I'm going to push him. I'm going to push him not to be content with anything that happens in the Premier League. I will push him hopefully to another level that he can get to."
And Dempsey could be a candidate for another U.S. team this summer. If the American Under-23s qualify next month for the Olympics, Dempsey would love to be considered for one of the three overage wild-card spots on coach Caleb Porter's U.S. team at the London Games.
"That's something that's always special. Growing up as a kid, I remember watching the Olympics. So we'll see if it works out of not," Dempsey said. "Just have to kind of wait and see. But there's two things I haven't done in my career so far. I've played in World Cups. I've played in the Europa League. I've played in the Premier League. It would be something to add to it to play in the Olympics, and also I never got to play Champions League. Those are the highest levels of competition possible."
Landon Donovan, missing this week's game because of bronchitis, also would like to play in the Olympics. The U.S. Soccer Federation would have to determine how best to use its wild cards to fill roster gaps.
Fulham pushed Dempsey up to forward for part of the season because of injuries. With the national team, he's mostly been at midfield under coaches Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley and Klinsmann.
"I think he's a forward," Wynalda said. "I've watched him enough. My argument is just because he's willing to do the work in the midfield doesn't mean that we should cheat ourselves of a good forward. He needs to have a little bit more rest out there. Take a couple miles off of him. Let him get the ball when he's rested, not when he's tired, and let's see how good he is because I'm convinced that he's a lot more talented than he's even shown us up to this point."
There's been talk that bigger clubs could be interested in Dempsey, whose contract expires after the 2012-13 season. There's always a danger of going to a team where playing time is scarce, as defender Oguchi Onyewu learned when he got into just one competitive match for AC Milan.
"Some of my best memories are at Fulham," Dempsey said. "I'm having another good season. Hopefully our team can finish in the top half. After this year I have one year left, and we'll have to see what happens. But I've always been a believer that you've got to make the most of where you're at, and right now I'm at Fulham."
Two years ago, Dempsey became the first American to appear in a European final ' Atletico Madrid beat Fulham for the title of the Europa League, the continent's No. 2 club tournament. Collecting firsts for American soccer players hasn't been Dempsey's goal, but they've brought recognition to the Londoner with the East Texas drawl.
"I think everybody tries to go as far as they can," he said. "And if you do well and set the bar really high, well then, you're a pioneer."